Ph.D. Candidate, Department of History, University of Kansas
The space for the exchange of information has shifted dramatically from daily newspapers and weekly magazines to twenty-four-hour news broadcasts and now websites updated by the minute. The development of internet technology has weakened the one-way model of communication, and participatory culture has allowed the public to take a more active role in creating, curating, and circulating media content. Media scholar Henry Jenkins et al. defines participatory culture as “a culture with low barriers to civic engagement and strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations” (2006, 3). Participatory culture is also characterized by a social connection between members of virtual communities in which an informal mentorship leads more experienced members to transfer knowledge along to novices (ibid., 7). Public engagement through virtual communities helps to shift the nature of information from an individual’s expression to a group discussion involving more members. Indeed, as society embraces new media technologies, participatory culture emerges, allowing the public to “archive, annotate, appropriate, and recirculate media content in powerful new ways” (ibid., 8).
Among new media technologies, social media is now the most popular communication and social community technology, with millions of users around the world. Scholars Kaplan and Haenlein define social media as “a group of internet-based applications that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content” (2010, 61). The success of social media is associated with the individual’s desire for establishing a connection with people that have similar interests and for achieving personal objectives (Sahelices-Pinto and Gutierrez-Rodriguez 2015). The development of social media increased the capacity for the creation and circulation of one’s expressions online. Digital culture scholar Jill Rettberg (2016, 3) states that the first online diaries appeared around 1994, but it was only in 1997 that Jorn Barger proposed to use the term weblog to refer to websites with interesting content and commentaries. Originally focused on autobiographical content, publications in online diaries and weblogs, or simply “blogs,” as they are commonly known, have become more essay styled. In 1999, the launch of sites specialized in blog publishing, such as Pitas and Blogger, facilitated starting a blog, and around 2004, corporations and individuals started creating profitable businesses by using blogs to talk about their products or lives (ibid., 4).
A blog’s participatory nature, in which people share information within a virtual community, allows for the creation of a variety of blog categories, such as food, pets, cars, games, and many others. The division in categories aims to facilitate the reader’s search for topics of interest. For example, food blogs commonly share information about recipes, experiences in tasting exotic food, and reviews of restaurants. The popularity of blogs led to the development of a new occupation, the so-called “blogger,” which can also be a synonym for other blog-based professions, such as a restaurant critic or fashion consultant. Popular food blogs discussing and evaluating restaurants can have an average of 2,000 daily visitors, and often the blogger’s opinion about a restaurant is trusted as much as a close friend’s opinion. For the restaurant business, it is a double-edged sword, since a blogger’s opinion can either elevate or degrade a restaurant’s image (Hector and Das 2013, 106).
One of the most famous food bloggers is Julie Powell, the author of the Julie/Julia Project. During the period of one year, she documented her cooking experience following Julia Child’s book Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Her blog has had remarkable success: A book based on her blog’s content, titled Julie and Julia: 365 days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, was published in 2005 and an adaptation to the big screen as the movie Julie & Julia, with Meryl Streep playing the role of Julia Child, premiered in 2009. Numbers from popular food blogs, such as Deb Perelman’s Smitten Kitchen blog, which attracts up to 4 million unique views a month, illustrates the popularity of food blogs even for those who might not be familiar with the category (Rousseau 2012, 7–8).
In Japan, food blogs are among the most popular of this widely adopted media of participatory culture. Aihara (2012) investigated a portal site for food blogs called Recipe-blog, founded in 2005, and reported that the portal had approximately 12,000 blogs based on food registered in 2012. The Recipe-blog website has a monthly access rate of approximately 1 million visitors, but considering the audience from all registered blogs, the number of accesses rises to 44 million monthly (ibid., 32). To get a better picture of the variety and popularity of blogs in Japan, a blog directory called Blogmura (blog village) holds over 100 different general categories, such as travel, food, and sports. Each general category is also divided into smaller and specific groups to fit the blog topic. As an example of detailed groups, the food category is divided into topics such as “French cuisine,” “desserts,” and “baking,” among others. Notably, some general categories have more than 30,000 blogs registered. However, a survey in 2010 that was conducted with Japanese blog owners reveals a decline in blog accesses due to the launch of new social media platforms. Participants claimed that the reduction in accesses occurs because bloggers are migrating or linking their blogs to other social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other microblogs, which are smaller versions of blogs. Indeed, the tools to link one’s blog to other social media that are available on Japanese blog servers, such as Ameba and FC2, demonstrates that not only are bloggers sharing information and connecting with an audience using multiple platforms but also that the connection with other social media might be affecting the participatory nature of blogs.
The freedom in format and themes allows bloggers to express themselves based on similar interests. In doing this, Japanese bloggers are using participatory culture and their own blogs to promote and self-produce themselves in consumer culture. When registering a blog in a directory, the author has the option to choose more than one category that fits the blog’s main theme. For example, a blog about one’s experience cooking new recipes could be registered as “food,” “hobby,” or “daily life,” or even all of them at once. The large variety of categories occurs because, in addition to their own interests in the topic, Japanese bloggers also seek communication through their blogs. Using graphic “emoticons” and assorted topics in the same post, they enhance the possibility of starting a dialogue with their readers. Scholars Miura and Yamashita (2007, 1466–67) report the important role of the audience in a virtual community: In their survey with Japanese blog authors about the social influence on blogging, participants claimed that positive feedback from readers motivated the author to continue posting. Therefore, the importance of the audience emphasizes the idea that blogs’ participatory nature goes beyond sharing information and establishing new communities. Using their blogs to reach as many readers as possible and to start communication with them indicates that bloggers are potentially using their personal pages to encourage a culture of self-promotion online through affective labor.
The opportunity to use blogs and participatory culture to share information, create virtual communities, and establish a connection with an audience can elevate a blogger’s status to a microcelebrity—those who gain wider appeal by “deploying and maintaining one’s online identity as if it were a branded good” (Senft 2013, 346). Itoh Makiko, or Maki, as she introduces herself in her biographical website, is one example. Born in Tokyo, Maki started her professional career as a web designer/developer and after living in different countries such as Japan, United Kingdom, United States, Switzerland, and France, she decided to start a food blog in 2003 called Just Hungry, which she defines as “a place for me to write about my food obsessions” (Itoh 2007a). Sharing her food obsessions with readers proved to be an interesting topic, and Just Hungry experienced tremendous recognition; she has been featured in the New York Times’ Diners Journal blog as well as in such renowned newspapers as the Los Angeles Times, The Japan Times, and The Guardian.
Just a few years later, in 2007, Maki created a splash in the Japanese food blog community when she decided to start her second blog, this time a bento blog called Just Bento, sharing recipes and techniques involved in bento preparation. Bento, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is a “Japanese-style packed lunch traditionally consisting of rice, vegetables, and Japanese specialties such as sashimi and teriyaki served in a lacquered or decorated wooden box.” Similar to its sister site Just Hungry, Just Bento was also mentioned in important media such as The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, TV Asahi, and The Independent, among others (Itoh 2007b). Due to their popularity, since 2009 Maki has dedicated herself exclusively to her blogs, becoming a full-time writer and blogger. Additionally, Just Bento crossed over from the virtual to the real: The Just Bento Cookbook was published in 2010 as a collection of bento recipes from the blog’s posts. Published in English, the book held the top spot in the category of Japanese cookbooks on Amazon for two years (Itoh 2006).
Maki shares more than recipes and cooking advice in her blogs, using posts with multiple topics, she creates an emotional relationship with her readers, to the extent of sharing her private life. In August 2011, Maki announced a reduction in the frequency of posts due to an emergency in her health condition and necessary medical treatment. Using posts in Just Hungry, her personal website, and her Twitter account, Maki updated her readers on her health condition, expressed her feelings regarding the treatment, and explained future plans for her blogs. Her readers immediately responded to her posts with hundreds of supportive messages.
After a brief hiatus with few updates to her blogs, Maki rewarded her fan community in January 2013 by offering an online course in Just Bento to teach readers how to make bento. The course, titled Bento 101, introduced the basic ingredients for bento-friendly recipes, cooking and arrangement techniques, and a shopping guide to bento boxes and kitchen tools. The course was free, and lessons were published in the blog. Maki strengthened the proximity (and interaction) with her readers by encouraging those who attempted making bento following her online classes to send pictures of their results (Itoh 2013a). Responses from readers exceeded Maki’s expectations, and in February 2013, she decided to use her Japanese food blog to start another course, this time, focused on Japanese food. Named Japanese Cooking 101, the lessons published in Just Hungry introduced basic recipes from Japanese cuisine, such as how to cook perfect white rice, miso soup, and other simple recipes using vegetables and fish. Despite some negative comments, she considered the reaction to her lessons extremely positive, and the positive feedback from readers was an additional motivation to continue with the Japanese food course (Itoh 2013b). Together, Just Hungry and Just Bento have had more than 300,000 daily readers worldwide, and the Just Bento Cookbook reached its seventh printing and is available in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, South Africa, and Australia (Pesek 2010).
Maki achieved her microcelebrity status due to her affective labor—creating interesting posts and developing a connection with her audience. While the path to online success might look as simple as choosing a favorite topic and blogging about it, the reality of generating a livelihood based on a pleasurable activity related to one’s own interests obfuscates the digital labor behind the process of blogging. The pressure to create posts and discussions interesting enough to entertain readers and attractive enough to create potential followers requires some exposition of one’s personal or private life. Moreover, the successful use of social media to build virtual communities and a strong connection with an audience demonstrate that bloggers’ digital labor in participatory culture is, perhaps, contributing to a change in the nature of work and encouraging a culture of self-promotion and the branded self.
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